Public officials remain free to speak their minds to reporters without running afoul of Arizona’s Open Meetings Law, Attorney General Terry Goddard concluded Monday.
Goddard rejected the contentions of attorneys for several cities and school districts that officials risk violating the law by commenting before an upcoming meeting about proposals they intend to make or how they plan to vote.
The attorneys argued that by talking about upcoming meetings, the officials could be telegraphing their plans to other council or board members.
Goddard said that could occur, but the fact that such comments also can be heard or read by everyone else removes the possibility of a legal violation.
The series of statutes collectively known as the Open Meetings Law is designed to ensure matters subject to a public meeting are dealt with entirely in the public’s view.
Goddard’s latest decision differs from a conclusion he made two years ago that e-mail messages from elected officials to others about pending matters do violate the Open Meetings Law.
At that time, Goddard said the electronic messages can create virtual meetings of public bodies.
He said even an e-mail from one board member to everyone else can trigger a violation of the law, even if no response is sought.
But on Monday, Goddard said comments made to reporters are different.
“The distinction is that an e-mail to a quorum of the board involves a ‘gathering’ of a quorum,” Goddard wrote. “A member’s comment to the media does not.”
In fact, he said, putting public officials in fear of talking to reporters undermines the very purpose of the Open Meetings Law.
“If members of public bodies refrain from speaking to the media, then government becomes less open to the public; not more,” he said.
Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix, said he and Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, sought Goddard’s input after a flurry of what they considered bad advice being given to some public officials.
Earlier this year, for example, Scottsdale City Attorney Deborah Robberson advised City Council members during an ethics training session that their comments to the media could get them in trouble with the law.
“I’d be cautious and avoid public comment on an upcoming precise matter,” Robberson had told them.